The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

New Classroom Arrangement

When I was in fourth grade, my teacher had tables for us instead of desks. We had plastic totes kept in a huge cubby shelf thing for our supplies and a separate tote in the middle of the table that had shared materials, especially pencils. I loved this grouping arrangement and loved how my friends and I were able to work so collaboratively and cooperatively throughout the year. (Miss McNamara would give us seating assignments but my best friends and I always took our supplies and went to her extra table at the back of the room to work. She let us do this as long as we actually worked, which we always did because we didn’t want to get split up!)

When I first started working as a substitute teacher, I saw all sorts of classroom arrangements: desks in rows, desks in groups, and tables of various sizes being the most common. (I never went to a classroom that had no furniture, although I’ve heard stories of such rooms existing.) After three years of working in hundreds of different classrooms, I definitely came to prefer groups of desks or tables.

Then I got my own classroom and my principal at the time strongly encouraged me to start the year off with rows so that I could establish my “teacher presence” in the classroom. Later in the year I switched to groups of four desk that faced each other. This has continued to be my preference.

At the end of last year I came to realise that I would most likely have a very large class this year (possibly upwards of 28-30 students). So I began to reimagine my entire room and I enlisted the help of my wife, who is able to think about negative space in a way that I have a hard time doing. (Give me a limited space and tell me to fill it completely and I’ll do it without a problem; give me the same space and tell me that I have to have empty space and I hit a brick wall.) She helped me figure out where to move bookshelves, my desk, my reading table, and the students’ desks so that I could optimise my space. (On a side note, I was told my first year here that my classroom is actually about 100 square feet smaller than the recommended space for the number of fourth grade students I have. Even though I’ve had several opportunities to switch classrooms, I’ve always opted to stay because all of my materials are already in here and organised in a way that works for me.)

I started this year with four columns of desks that were mirrored across the center line of my room. This meant that two columns faced the right and two columns faced the left. This worked for a brief period of time but then I needed my students to be able to work in small groups at their seats and so I arranged things to make room for groups of four or five desks. It had been this way for over a month, but I was frustrated by some of the problems I ran into, including not being able to monitor all of my students, limited space, and the constant shifting of desks as students moved around.

Then I got a much-needed filing cabinet that I needed close to my desk and reading table and discovered that I had no good place to put it. I struggled with it for a couple of hours before finally asking my wife to come down and help me out. She suggested changing my desk’s orientation, moving my table, and completely reconfiguring the students’ desks. Now I have four rows of desks that face the front of the room with an aisle down the middle to provide ease of access. My table is strategically placed so that I can see every student’s desk and, more importantly, Chromebook screen, from where I sit as I work with small groups. I can also see students on the carpet as they work with my aide, student teacher, or each other.

More importantly, though, is what my students are able to do: focus on their work, complete assignments with independence, trust that their teacher is monitoring the entire classroom to ensure safety, and ask others for help in appropriate ways as needed.

I don’t think it is the best arrangement possible, but it is the best arrangement for what we need at this moment. My students spend much of the day out of their seats, anyway, spreading out as the work with partners and self-selected groups. Because I am doing a workshop model for literacy and math instruction, I spend very little time each day at the front of the room teaching the entire class the same thing at the same time. Instead, I present short minilessons and then set students off to complete a variety of independent, differentiated tasks as I work with my small groups on targeted skills.

This entire exercise has been a good reminder for me that the classroom and the learning environment need to be designed around the needs of the students, not the wishes of the teacher. We may return to groups in the future. We may have a large horseshoe arrangement another time. And we may keep our rows and columns. It is all about the students being able to learn in a safe, positive, appropriate environment. Always.

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